Thursday, June 13, 2024

Mayor considers potential transportation bond following Riverlights residents’ plea for improvements

The number of units intended to be built at Riverlights has been amended multiple times and now tops more than 3,000. Construction is currently underway showing the expansive amount of land being developed, leading to increased — and what some residents say is dangerous — traffic. (Courtesy Michelle Clegg)

WILMINGTON — Residents living in Riverlights say it’s like a game of Frogger to pull out of their neighborhood during heavy traffic, such as morning and evening commutes. 

READ MORE: With 15 unfinished projects on the books, city considers postponing capital plan

Their pleas for additional traffic signals along River Road spurred the mayor to consider undertaking another transportation bond in the near future.

City spokesperson Dylan Lee said a future transportation bond will be discussed in the upcoming fiscal year as staff develops its next capital improvement plan.

The last transportation bond was voter-implemented in 2014 for $44 million; it was funded in part by a 2-cent tax rate increase. At this time, 16 projects are complete, eight are in construction or out for bid and 13 are in the planning or design phases.

In 2014, a committee was formed to consider potential projects that would be included in the bond. City council then had to adopt the findings and apply for Local Government Commission approval. A public hearing was held before council approved adding the referendum on the November ballot.

The city had a goal to complete all bond projects by 2020 but have faced significant delays. In 2019, staff shortages and outside developer projects slowed progress. Then the pandemic exacerbated issues of supply chain shortages and increased construction costs.

However, road improvements associated with Riverlights were not included, but not without an attempt by Mayor Bill Saffo.

“In 2014, before we passed the transportation bond, there was debate on the council about moving forward with the extension of Independence Boulevard to River Road,” Saffo said at last Tuesday’s council meeting.

However, he noted, at the time Riverlights developers had not begun construction and therefore the improvement was put on hold. Also, the potential Cape Fear Sky Bridge, a new bridge over the river, was still being explored and could have hindered progress.

“It’s really needed,” Saffo said last week. “We talked about it in 2014 and it didn’t make the bond in those years, but I wish it would have.”

His efforts were voted down by all but one other council member at the time.

Discussions of a new bond were spurred from a local group advocating for transportation improvements along River Road and Independence Boulevard.

“Every driver has a story of Herculean efforts of trying to leave their neighborhood,” Riverlights resident Ellen McNair told council June 6.

She cited a circulating petition with nearly 1,000 signatures asking the city to consider road improvements that would make it safer and easier to travel along River Road at the Independence Boulevard intersection.

On March 29, the petition was sent to city council and Saffo.

“Riverlights and Del Webb at Riverlights has grown from a lovely planned community of 2,290 homes in 2017 to an overdeveloped and crowded mixed-use development of over 3,000 that is still building out,” the email stated.

It added those numbers did not include myriad neighborhoods that have been added along Independence Road. Nearly 700 units are in the works on Independence between Barclay West and Wilmington Three. The Village at Motts Landing, phase three, is under review for 67 single-family homes on River Road.

The email also stated the group of neighbors has met with city traffic engineering and understand there is no funding available for road improvements at this time and no mitigation would be addressed until 2030.

“Most of us will be dead by then,” resident Sharon Valentine joked to Port City Daily on a call Friday. 

Many homeowners in Riverlights and Del Webb are retirees.

Valentine, part of Del Webb Local Issues — an organization formed due to neighborhood concerns — is one of many founding members collaborating to seek a solution. Members are from subdivisions along River Road, including Riverlights, Del Webb, Echo Farms, Woodlands, Rivers Edge and more.

“We started to meet weekly with a strategy feeling of what we would have to do is continually put the issue before city council,” Valentine said.

They appeared before council during the April 18 and June 6 meetings.

As a result, Saffo decided to direct staff to take a look at some short-term solutions that might ease residential concerns while a long-term fix can be sought.

After multiple amendments to Riverlights’ 1,359-acre overall master plan, the neighborhood at full buildout will have 3,350 units of varying types. The original agreement with Newland called for 2,290 units, which was amended in 2013 to 2,790 before its final amendment in 2020.

“Each time an agreement is modified, traffic improvement requirements are pushed out further,” resident Valentine told council in April.

The intersection of Independence and River Road — averaging more than 10,500 vehicles daily — consists of two lanes of traffic, one in each direction, with no turn lanes or traffic lights. The neighborhood committee seeking assistance has also engaged Rep. Charlie Miller to explore alternative funding sources and collaborate with NCDOT and the city to determine who has jurisdiction over the roadways in question.

According to a 2018 contract with Riverlights developer Newland and the city, Newland — acquired by Brookfield Properties in 2021 — paid $2.75 million in lieu of transportation improvements requested by the city, Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization and NCDOT.

A traffic impact analysis prepared by Michael Baker International from 2022 shows River Road and Independence Boulevard are state owned. It also indicates the fatal crash rate along Independence Boulevard is four times the statewide rate and the non-fatal rate is double the state average.

Riverlights resident Michael Sanclimenti discussed the 2022 study as well as a traffic study for River Road and Independence Boulevard done in 2020 by Kimley Horn, during his public remarks at the June 6 council meeting.  

“Both studies have basically the same conclusions and recommendations,” he said. “Something must be done.”

The reports suggest traffic signals or traffic circles at River Road and Independence as opposed to just a stop sign that’s there now.

During the April meeting, resident Trish Rioux pointed to other nearby neighborhoods expanding, particularly Echo Farms and Motts Landing. He added growth at the Port of Wilmington was contributing to increased traffic.

“Taking that all into account, I and other homeowners believe action at River Road and Independence needs to be a priority in the upcoming planning year,” Rioux told council. 

There are not only traffic concerns, she said, but also possible delays in evacuation and emergency vehicle access.

Access to evacuation routes was also a concern of Valentine. She said she participated in a hurricane evacuation training two years ago in the Del Webb community, across the street from Riverlights.

“We looked at the routes we would take versus the population and found out we’re trapped,” Valentine told council. “To get over 4,000 people through a small neighborhood is just not feasible.”

There are 17 access points along a 1-mile stretch of Independence between Carolina Beach and River roads.

“This is now a legitimate concern,” Saffo said and tasked staff with reviewing transportation initiatives and performing an updated study on the possibility of expanding Independence to River Road, to be considered in a future bond.

Saffo also asked how quickly a traffic signal or roundabout could be implemented at the intersection as a short-term solution.

City manager Tony Caudle agreed to look into it and also pointed to possible improvements planned with the developer of Watermark Marina.

Planned to be built by 2024, Watermark’s expansion will comprise 248 multi-family units. The WMPO’s traffic impact analysis requires a single-lane roundabout on River Road at Independence Boulevard before construction.

Valentine said she was pleased to hear the mayor’s remarks directing staff to review possible solutions, though her group is prepared to keep pushing the matter.

“We’re still in our battle garb,” Valentine said to PCD. “And if we don’t begin to see some movement, we’ll take it to the ballot box.”

Riverlights spokesperson wouldn’t answer questions about the resident petition or feedback, how often the Riverlights contract had been amended, or what traffic and road improvements are required and planned.

“Please know that Riverlights has met and will continue to meet every obligation contained within its development agreement with the City of Wilmington and will continue to meet those requirements,” spokesperson Margee Herring said. “Any further comment should come from the city.”

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